Addressing Hunger and Poverty Today

[1] One billion human beings are hungry today. One billion people do not have enough to eat. The number alone is staggering. But what makes it scandalous is the fact that God’s abundant creation — the fertile earth and seas — can produce adequate nutrition for all. Scarcity is not the problem. The problems (and the solutions!) lie in access, stewardship and public will. We live in an era when hunger is not inevitable. We know what to do. This is both an indictment and a cry of hope.

[2] Indeed, this is a time of hope for hungry people. There are signs of hope in international sustainable development, in popular culture and in our own church.
Introduction to the Issue by Nancy Arnison

[3] In this country there is significant momentum to reform foreign assistance — to do the things that we know work, but that have received inadequate attention of late, such as investing in small-holder agriculture and local farmers, and focusing on maternal and child nutrition.

[4] In popular culture, there is a growing interest in food production systems, sustainable agriculture, environmental impacts of food production, and the ethics of eating. People are asking how their daily choices in each of these areas connect to hunger, poverty and health at home and abroad.

[5] In our own church the signs of hope are very strong. In spite of a tough economy, Lutheran commitment to the work of ELCA World Hunger remains high. Rejecting simplistic approaches, Lutherans supporting this work recognize the need for comprehensive, multi-pronged efforts to address hunger internationally and domestically. Through short-term emergency relief and longer-term sustainable development that addresses the root causes of hunger, we help communities lift themselves out of poverty into self-sufficiency. But churches and other non-profit organizations can not accomplish this work alone — the decisions of governments and corporations have enormous impact on the lives of those who are hungry. Just as Luther spoke out on behalf of the poor, so must the caring and prophetic voice of the faithful be heard today crying out for fair and equitable policies for poor and hungry people. To be effective, therefore, the ELCA’s commitment to ending hunger takes the form of interconnected strategies in relief, development, education and advocacy.

[6] As I meet with people across this country, it is clear to me that they want their church to make a difference in the world, and they want to participate personally in that transformative work. Could it be that through this deep engagement in fighting hunger, God is also sustaining the church itself and drawing it into a vibrant future?

[7] In this issue of Journal of Lutheran Ethics, three authors offer tools and resources for addressing hunger and poverty. They approach our topic from three very different perspectives, confirming that there are many angles of this problem. Together they offer access points into poverty through patristic writings, analysis of the spirituality of consumption, and scriptural resources for addressing sex slavery.

[8] Susan R. Holman is author of The Hungry are Dying (2001) and God Knows There’s Need (2009), both from Oxford University Press, and is editor of Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (BakerAcademic, 2008). She currently serves as an academic writer/editor at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health.

[9] Holman’s excellent article “Patristic Christian Views on Poverty and Hunger” examines early Christian responses to poverty. Noting that writings from the Patristic era (second to sixth century) spoke powerfully to Reformation-era Christians seeking social change, she asks whether they might also speak to us today. It is striking that second century Christians integrated care for the poor and hungry into worship. Equally striking is the early church’s struggle with issues that resonate today: a distinction between “worthy and undeserving beggars,” dilemmas of personal wealth and lifestyle, the role(s) of charity and justice, and motivations ranging from pity to human rights. Holman cautions that we must “recognize the limitations of their framework (patronage, slavery), their failure to empower social change, and their all-male blindness to the effects of poverty as it is suffered disproportionately by women.” Sadly, we retain more than mere echoes of these limitations today, and thus the context of the patristic authors is more apt than we would wish. The diversity of their writings provides rich food for thought.

[10] Shannon Jung is Professor of Town and Country Ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. His books on food and hunger include Hunger and Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2009); Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006) and Food for Life: A Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

[11] Jung’s article “Who Gets to Eat? Consumption, Complicity and Poverty,” argues that the culture of consumption is destructive to both the poor and the affluent. Subsidized by the poor, internationally and domestically, through low wages and poor working conditions (e.g., pesticide exposure, coal mine explosions) the culture of consumption nonetheless seduces both its victims and beneficiaries to adopt its values. The article focuses primarily on the affluent who, according to Jung, suffer spiritual malaise upon realizing that they have benefitted at another’s expense. The cure for the malaise of the affluent is contrition for this complicity and a movement to a “more spiritually exciting and neighborly future” involving re-education of desire away from consumption and toward discipleship and sharing. Citing research about happiness and spiritual well-being, Jung emphasizes how much more satisfied the affluent will be when they make this shift. This will no doubt be a compelling argument for some. My personal concern is that its emphasis veers toward making the giving more about the happiness of the giver than about the dignity of, entitlement of, and justice for, the other. I have no doubt, however, that Jung is also deeply concerned about the latter and that this drives his work as well.

[12] It is important for people to understand and address poverty in its multiple dimensions — and Jung is right to point out the dimension of complicity and ignorance, through which consumers call cheap food a blessing, deny the true costs of production, feel powerless as purchasers, and fail to see the structural components of poverty.

[13] Matthew Rindge is on the religious studies faculty at Gonzaga University. Interested in the intersections of scripture and contemporary culture, he writes for both academic journals and popular outlets such as The Huffington Post. Rindge is currently revising Illustrating Wisdom: Luke 12:13–34 and the Interplay of Death and Possessions (Society of Biblical Literature’s series Early Christianity and Its Literature), and co-writing The History of Biblical Interpretation to 1835: A Reader (Westminster John Knox Press).

[14] Rindge’s article, “Mark’s Gospel, Social Outcasts, and Modern Slavery” illustrates the interconnections between hunger/poverty and other social injustices. While Jung addressed the ways in which wealth entraps the affluent, Rindge focuses on the ways in which poverty entraps young girls in sex slavery. He uses Mark’s Gospel as a resource for responding to sex slavery in three ways. First, Jesus as healer removes the sources of social exclusion and restores outcasts to community. And through physical contact with the “unclean,” he is willing to risk impurity in order to reintegrate the marginalized. Rindge points out that sex slavery thrives in part because it “lurks in a world of lurid darkness where many fear to tread.” Assistance may require entering this ugly world in order to be present with and aid the victims/survivors.

[15] Second, through meals with outcasts, Jesus brings them into society without removing the source of their marginalization. In these instances, he does not change or heal them, he welcomes them. Rindge uses these stories to argue for the importance of healthy relationships with women and girls trapped in the sex trade.

[16] Third, Rindge argues that Jesus’ actions in the Temple in Mark 11:15–17 constitute a direct challenge to an institution responsible for marginalizing people. We must not rest with “rescuing, rehabilitating, and reintegrating” those who are trapped in the sex trade but must “challenge the Pharoahs of our world to let God’s people go.”

[17] So, too, we must challenge and transform the structures that perpetuate hunger and other forms of poverty. These three writers offer a variety of resources to motivate, sustain and aid us in the journey to end hunger.

Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.